And even when the restaurant is fancy, the problem persists. Ms. Gomez experienced it at her first restaurant, a fine-dining place in Atlanta she named Cardamom Hill, after the spice-growing region that she was touring last month. Customers would complain that she charged $32 for a complex fish curry with smoked tamarind, even when a fish entree at a well-regarded new Southern restaurant not far away cost the same.
“That makes me see red immediately,” said David Chang, the prolific chef and restaurateur, whose parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea. “It’s the worst kind of racism, because it’s so readily accepted.”
Even though there are some notable Indian chefs cooking in America, integrating the kind of food Ms. Gomez loves won’t come easy, said Mr. Chang, who first met Ms. Gomez last week over fried chicken in Atlanta. “Considering the time we’re living in, having someone with that color skin from that part of the world makes it a hard sell,” he said. “It’s probably not going to happen in one lifetime, and it is going to take relentless media exposure.”
That’s exactly why Ms. Gomez had invited a producer working on a show for PBS; two videographers, who help create her web-based subscription cooking show, “Curry and Cornbread”; and two newspaper journalists to join her in Kerala.
The trip was a relentless blur of food and road miles. One day Ms. Gomez was picking out silky pomfret and river mullet to smear with masala, in a makeshift kitchen on the banks of Fort Kochi, and the next she was in a van grinding up a narrow mountain road to Kerala’s vast tea estates, or buying iron knives from a street vendor. By the end, she was happy to order a steak and get an ayurvedic treatment at a seaside hotel.
It had been eight years since Ms. Gomez last stepped onto Indian soil. She had come to adopt her son, Ethan, then a 3-year-old living in an orphanage.
So much has happened since then. For one thing, she embarked on a cooking career.
Ms. Gomez originally wanted to work in the beauty business. When the recession hit the United States in 2008, she had been running a luxe ayurvedic spa in Atlanta, where she had moved with her husband, Bobby Palayam. As her clients finished their massages and facials, she would feed them vegetarian biryanis and coconut-infused stir-fries bright with turmeric and chiles.
Then the spa succumbed to the downturn, and some of the city’s best chefs, as well as clients who understood a special thing when they tasted it, encouraged her to keep spreading the curry-and-coconut gospel of Kerala. She did, first with a supper club and then, in 2012, at Cardamom Hill. The menu drew parallels between the American South and the Indian South, highlighting both regions’ mutual love of fried chicken, braised pork and vegetables like okra and field peas.
“You know that Kerala is in your kitchen when you have coconut oil, curry leaves and mustard seeds sizzling in a chati,” she likes to tell people. “That’s our trinity.”
Two years later, just as Cardamom Hill had gained critical acclaim, she shut the place down. She wasn’t making any money, and was working so hard she had no time for her son. “I had lost my joy for cooking,” she said.
Her next restaurant was a quiet, stylish Indian patisserie where she served puff-pastry samosas and carrot cakes infused with black pepper. She closed it in February. The reasons weren’t much different.
Now she cooks for private clients at the Third Space, her kitchen and dining room in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. She teaches cooking, consults for food companies and has become a “chef ambassador” for CARE. She receives more requests for public appearances than she can say yes to. Her 2016 cookbook, “My Two Souths,” was nominated for a James Beard Award.
Ms. Gomez learned to cook from her mother, Hazel, and her three aunts, who all lived near one another in a three-household compound in Thiruvananthapuram (she said she preferred the old name, Trivandrum), Kerala’s capital city on the Arabian Sea. It was a dreamy childhood, in a religiously diverse and literate region of India where young people prefer American rock to Bollywood soundtracks.
The Portuguese had begun settling there in the 15th century, bringing with them a love of pork and for the chiles that would come to mark Kerala’s food. It’s how her family got its name, and why she grew up a meat-eating Roman Catholic in a state where more than half the population is Hindu.
Her father was a civil engineer who helped build bridges for a German company. Her mother never set a table that wasn’t beautiful.
Ms. Gomez grew up pulling mangoes from the trees and buying sugar cane from the vendors outside her parochial school. At night, she would head to the street stalls called thattukadas, for chunks of chicken with crunchy fried shallots, garlic and curry leaves crisped in coconut oil. She loves to eat the dish with flaky wheat parathas, made using a method that originated in her home state.
Her father was intent on moving the children to America for college. To prepare, she and her older brothers were required to speak only English at home and eat using cutlery instead of the tidy, one-handed finger style many in Kerala use for their curry-soaked red rice and breakfast puttus.
“I think he had seen enough of the world that he didn’t want us to come to this country and be outsiders,” she said.
When she was 16, her father died of a heart attack. She and her mother moved to Michigan, where her older brothers were already in college. They eventually landed in Queens, where cousins encouraged her mother to cater food for the Kerala diaspora.
“I hated it,” Ms. Gomez said. “Our apartment was so small I would literally disinfect the bathtub, and I would have to wash the dishes in there.”
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